Last week, I wrote about how ingredients work together in baking, particularly the importance of gluten. This week, I’m looking at how you can convert your favourite recipes to make them gluten free, what to add to mimic the structure of gluten and using other ingredients for adding flavour and texture.
What sort of flour should I use?
There are so many gluten free flours to choose from, particularly if you look in specialist health shops. Some you will prefer the taste of to others, but for baking, you need to choose flour according to its protein content. As with wheat flour, the higher the protein content of the gluten free flour, the stronger the overall structure of the finished product. In that sense, you can think of the proteins in gluten free flours in much the same way.
- Nut flours like almond or cashew add a mild sweetness and of course, a nutty taste and are versatile enough to be used in most baked goods as a substitute for flour. You can buy them in two forms – as ground (milled) nuts or as flour. The flour version is finer (usually made with blanched nuts, skin removed) and some varieties are fat-reduced.
- Coconut flour is also slightly sweet tasting but mild overall. This flour is very absorbent, however, meaning that it is necessary to add more liquid to a recipe when using this flour. A 1:1 ratio of flour to liquid is recommended.
- White rice flour is a low protein flour that provides a crumbly texture, therefore is useful in pastries or shortbreads. Some people (myself included) do not like the gritty taste of white rice flour when used in yeast breads and other similar products.
- Sorghum flour (sometimes referred to as Juwar flour) is made from a cereal grain. It has a similar taste to wheat flour and is high in protein (10g per 100g), making it ideal for use in bread, biscuits and cakes.
- Brown rice flour is made from unhulled rice grains. It has a mild flavour and adds crunch to baked goods, so use in combination with other flours to avoid grittiness. It has a protein content of 7.5g per 100g.
- Corn flour is made from ground corn, so it is yellow in colour. Not to be mistaken with corn starch, which is white (and pure starch, no protein), you may also see it referred to as corn meal. Corn flour has 7g protein per 100g and is often used to make corn bread, tortillas and pasta.
- Buckwheat flour has a strong odour and taste. It is made from the buckwheat plant, which is a close relation of rhubarb. Buckwheat flour has 16.4g protein per 100g and is often used for making pancakes.
- Quinoa flour is made from an ancient cereal grain. It has a strong flavour and aroma and is high in protein (14.2g per 100g), making it ideal for use in bread making.
- Teff flour is made from ground grains of the ancient grass, Fragostis tef, native to Ethiopia. Red Teff has a rich red/brown colour, so use sparingly unless you want a pink-tinged loaf. The protein content of Teff flour is 11g per 100g and it is useful for making bread, pancakes or wraps.
- Amaranth flour is made from the dried and ground seeds of the amaranth plant (a herb). It is similar to polenta in texture and has a strong earthy and grassy taste when used in baked goods. Protein content is 16.2g per 100g.
- Gram flour is made from ground chickpeas. Any flours made from beans tend to give strong beany flavour, making it a preferred choice for savoury dishes, including savoury pancakes and flat breads. Protein content is 12.8g per 100g.
- Soya flour is made from ground soya beans and has a high protein content (around 35g per 100g). It is yellow in colour, with a strong flavour and odour.
- Millett flour (also known as Bajri flour) has 10g of protein per 100g. It is pale in colour and produces a soft crumb. Millett can result in a crumbly texture if too much is used, however.
- Sweet rice flour has excellent binding properties because it is so sticky. It is often used in Asian cooking and may also be referred to as sticky or glutinous rice flour. With a mild taste, it is suitable for most uses, but use sparingly and in combination with other flours. Protein content is 6g per 100g.
Most gluten free flours have a recipe on the back of the packet. This is helpful, but don’t feel as though it is the only thing you can use the flour for. Experiment with different combinations of any flour. There are no rules and no restrictions as to what gluten free flour you choose and what you attempt to make with it. What is best though, is to combine flours in order to give a mix of different protein contents and flavours.
A huge mistake I made when I started out making gluten free bread was to think that I could throw all the ingredients in to the bread maker and let it do its job. What resulted was a badly mixed and uneven loaf that even the birds turned down.
Tips for successful gluten free baking
– Use a combination of high protein flours for breads, pies and pizza bases and lower protein flours (combined with starches) for cakes and cookies etc. Mix the flours and starches well before adding dry ingredients (with so many colours and textures of gluten free flours, this step is really important).
– The golden rule of thumb is a ratio of 70:30 protein to starch, going up to 50:50 for cakes. Why add starch to your recipe, if the flour already contains it? Starch is important for both structure and texture and it combines with the proteins in the flour to tenderise the finished product. Starch is often added to gluten free recipes because the dough takes on more water, compared with wheat dough and this can weaken the protein structure. Adding starch helps to reinforce the structure and it also helps to hold water and keep the product moist. Common starches used in gluten free baking include arrowroot, cornstarch, tapioca starch (sometimes referred to as tapioca flour) and potato starch.
– Gluten free ‘doughs’ should be wetter and stickier than their wheat containing counterparts. For bread, look for a texture similar to an over sticky dough, not as runny as a cake batter, but not something that you would be able to knead. You don’t have to knead a gluten free dough anyway. This step is necessary for developing the gluten, so you can avoid it. What you can do is use a mixer with a dough hook and aim to incorporate as much air as you can.
– If you use a bread maker, you may have noticed that on an ordinary programme, the machine will allow the dough to rest and rise then will mix it again before allowing it to rest and rise one more time prior to baking. This ‘knocking back’ phase helps to further develop the gluten as well as redistributing the yeast and air pockets. Without the gluten present, you only have one chance for your dough to rise, so under no circumstances do you want to ruin the structure by a second kneading stage. If you don’t have a gluten free programme on your bread machine, choose a quick programme instead.
– Add half a teaspoon of vinegar to help preserve your bread. This also adds to the overall flavour.
– You need more leavening to help your cakes and breads rise. Add around 25% more baking powder/soda and/or yeast.
– Experiment with different liquids, to add flavour and texture. This could include replacing some of the water with yoghurt or buttermilk, to give a fluffier product. You could also try adding fruit or vegetable purees, to give sweetness and moisture (works well in brownies). These also add pectin, to help bind the product.
– Add an extra egg to the recipe and try using carbonated water to put more air into your product.
– Increase the flavour by 10%, so for example, extra vanilla essence. You can also add more flavour by using ingredients like nut milk, honey or coffee.
– Gums are often used in gluten free baking. They help to bind the product in a similar way to the starch and the gluten, by forming a stretchy web when mixed with water. If you use a combination of flours and starches in your recipe, gums may not be necessary, but here is an overview of what is available to try:
- Xanthan gum – made from corn. Only 1-2 teaspoons are required in a recipe. Too much can lead to a heavy or slimy product.
- Guar gum – made from a legume. This is a very powerful thickening agent, so again only a small amount is required.
- Ground golden flaxseed – use 2 teaspoons for every half teaspoon of xantham or guar gum, mixed with boiling water to form a gel.
- Ground chia seeds – use in the same way as flaxseeds.
- Gelatine – can be used to help make dough more pliable.
- Agar agar – vegan alternative to gelatine. This product is made from seaweed and is high in fibre, therefore must be used sparingly to avoid a soggy product. Around 1 teaspoon for every 100ml is recommended.
Don’t forget to make a note of what you use so that you remember for the next time.
Have you converted your favourite recipes to gluten free? How did it go?